Technology and Human Responsibility
When science is governed by a conviction that the world is a machine, the distinction between science and technology naturally grows tenuous. Indeed, the influential philosopher, Daniel Dennett, has argued even of biology that it “is not just like engineering; it is engineering. It is the study of functional mechanisms, their design, construction, and operation.” And the University of Texas historian of science and technology, David Channell, argues that we should no longer think of technology as applied science; rather, “science is just applied technology.”
The study of technology is therefore essential to an understanding of what science is becoming today. You might say that all the work of The Nature Institute relates to technology — that is, we are concerned to rise from a technological or mechanistic view of the world to a living, qualitative, and contextual understanding of it. In order to achieve this, we must understand the character of technological thinking as deeply as possible, and learn how to transform it. Here is some of our work aiming in this direction:
This freely distributed, online newsletter was inaugurated in 1995, and has gained wide influence as (in political scientist Langdon Winner's words) “one of the few places on the Net where wisdom finds a voice.” The publication focuses heavily, but not exclusively, on technological issues and the contrast between mechanistic and organic thinking. Its readership extends heavily into the engineering community as well as into academic, general-interest, and policymaking circles.
More recently, NetFuture has focused on mechanism and holism in biology. See "Organisms and Machines" below.
For more information about NetFuture, including subscription information and an index to its several hundred articles, please see the NetFuture home page.
Organisms and Machines
The era of molecular biology was marked near its beginning by the triumphalism attending the discovery of the double helix and by the seemingly unstoppable ascendence of the mechanistic view of organisms. Against all expectation, this same era is now culminating in a (still largely unheralded) revolution that is rapidly overturning the mechanistic prejudice. Particularly in genetics and epigenetics — but extending into every field of molecular biology — the flood of research findings points to the importance of context, plasticity, coordination, integration, unity, and, in general, the irreducible centrality of the living organism as a whole for our understanding of all its parts.
Steve Talbott's main work today focuses on this renewed appreciation for the whole organism and its profound implications for our own life and that of the earth. To follow this work, see the Biology Worthy of Life project.
The tensions between a mechanistic understanding and true science are most immediately evident in the attempts to reengineer organisms. Here the threat is that, by treating the organism as if it were a collection of interchangeable machine parts (for example, genes), we will progressively render it less alive and more machine-like.
A radically different view of the organism results when you view it qualitatively and in its full ecological context, as Craig Holdrege does in his whole organism studies. For criticisms of the science and policy driving biotechnology today, see our program on Genetics and Biotechnology. For a book that analyzes the one-sidedness of current, technological thinking in genetics and shows the way toward a more balanced approach to heredity, see Craig's Genetics and the Manipulation of Life: The Forgotten Factor of Context.
The Future Does Not Compute: Transcending the Machines in Our Midst
The networked computer and digital technologies in general have rapidly come to define the quintessential “machine” assumed by the theoretical constructions of mechanistic science. In his 1995 book, The Future Does Not Compute, Steve Talbott looks at a broad range of issues, including:
- how computers and the Net can distort the education of the child;
- the relation between technology and environmental concerns;
- the power of computer-based organizations to sustain themselves in a semi-somnambulistic manner, free of conscious, present control;
- the tendency of the “global village” to dissolve real villages;
- the role of computers in supporting group activity;
- the hollowing out of language by technology;
- how to understand computers within the context of the broad evolution of human consciousness;
- the connections between high technology and a new kind of mysticism.
See the book's main page for the full text of the book, along with an annotated table of contents and excerpts from reviews.
Technology and the Handicapped
Our booklet, Extraordinary Lives: Disability and Destiny in a Technological Age, explores the role of technological assists in the life of the handicapped, and by this means throws light on the larger role of technology in modern society. Written by Steve Talbott, the booklet is part of our series of “Nature Institute Perspectives.” Here is a fuller description of the book.
A Few Places to Start
From among the several hundred articles on various aspects of technology that have appeared in NetFuture and elsewhere, the following rather arbitrary selections may suggest wider horizons to explore:
“Of Machines, Organisms, and Agency”, by Stephen L. Talbott. In Context #35 (Spring 2016).
Whether we look at them at the molecular level or as we naturally encounter them, organisms appear to be agents carrying out intentions, even if not consciously or in anything like a human manner. But what do we mean by “agency” and “intention”?
“When Engineers Take Hold of Life: Synthetic Biology”, by Craig Holdrege. In Context #32 (Fall 2014).
What happens when genetic engineers, becoming yet more ambitious, begin to envision the synthesis of altogether new life forms, using Lego block-like “BioBricks”? The ambition may be foolish, but huge resources are now being devoted to it, with grave implications for the biological future.
“Of Weeds, Milkweed, and Monarchs, by Craig Holdrege. In Context #31 (Spring 2014).
Genetically modified crops designed to endure herbicides now occupy great swaths of the American heartland. This may be good news for the manufacturers of the herbicides, but it does not look like good news for the monarch butterflies that must navigate through this heartland to their overwintering sites in Mexico. Monarch numbers have been declining in apparent synchrony with the increasing use of herbicides.
“Rooted in the World”, by Craig Holdrege. In Context #29 (Spring 2013).
Craig’s 2013 book, Thinking Like a Plant, is written as a practical guide for learning to think the way nature lives. In this excerpt, Craig closely observes plant germination and seedling development to provide an overview of the intimate relation between plant growth and human thinking. The metaphor relating the plant to thinking is neither casual nor arbitrary, but is founded upon our objective rootedness in the world. He shows here how plants remain open and receptive to their environment throughout the unfolding of their lives and suggests that “a prerequisite for gaining a living relation to the world as human beings is the ability to open ourselves through attentive perception.”
“Context-Sensitive Action: The Development of Push-Pull Farming in Africa”, by Craig Holdrege. In Context #27 (Spring 2012).
How do you control insects by attracting and repelling them at the same time? Hundreds of African farmers, particularly in Kenya, have been delighted to learn that a “push-pull” method really does the trick. The ambitious and economically important research program behind this development tells us a lot about how science can be productive in its own terms while also playing a socially transformative role.
“Computers, the Internet, and the Abdication of Consciousness”, an interview of Steve Talbott for the C. G. Jung web page, conducted by Dolores Brien.
In her introduction to the interview, Brien writes, “The thrust of Stephen Talbott's deeply thought and deeply felt work is to awaken us from our psychological somnambulism vis à vis the technology which permeates our personal life and culture.”
“The Trouble with Ubiquitous Computing,” Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3, in NetFuture.
By letting their work develop out of a one-sided preoccupation with the technological milieu rather than immersion in the meaningful contexts affected by their inventions, high-tech engineers inflict technological “answers” upon us without any serious reference to the supposed problems they are the answers for. Anything that can be automated should be automated — so runs a common sentiment within the high-tech world. What is right about this, and what is just plain foolish?
“Children of the Machine,” chapter 14 in The Future Does Not Compute.
Through education based on computer programming, the child loses — never having fully developed it in the first place — that fluid, imaginative ability to let experience reshape itself in meaningful ways before she carves out of it a set of atomic facts.
“Sowing Technology” in NetFuture #123.
Written by Craig Holdrege and Steve Talbott, this article first appeared in Sierra (July/August, 2001). It looks at the problems of agricultural biotechnology from an ecological vantage point.
“Who's Killing Higher Education? (Or is It Suicide?)” in NetFuture #78.
For a long while now we have slowly been reconceiving education as the transfer of information from one database or brain to another. In the end, we will realize that this makes not only the teacher but also the student obsolete.
“Is Technological Improvement What We Want?” in NetFuture #38.
Technical improvements in the intelligent machinery around us tend to represent a deepened threat in the very areas we began by trying to improve. This, so long as we do not recognize it, is the Great Deceit of intelligent machinery. The opportunity to make software more friendly is also an opportunity to make it unfriendly at a more decisive level.
Finally: go to the NetFuture topical index for a list of several dozen subject headings, each of which links to the appropriate articles.